Kelly Antonelli is good at providing options. Viable ones. She’s been doing it for close to 30 years at various positions within Ulster County’s umbrella social services programs, both public and private. Ever since becoming a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) after receiving her master’s degree (MSW — master of social work) from SUNY Albany, it has been with one thought in mind — to help those who need help in navigating “the system.”
From her first “social work” job at St. Agatha’s Preventive Services in Kingston, funded through the New York Foundling Hospital, through her present one of conflict-based advocate through the Ulster County Public Defender’s Office, Antonelli has worked to assure that those without deep pockets and connections get a fair shake in our sometime overburdened network of community resources. At St. Agatha’s she provided parenting skills to high-risk families with children at risk of placement in foster care or in group homes. Antonelli referred to it as parent-aid. Then there was a stint at Family of Woodstock, where she was a case manager for the homeless, people with AIDS and those with substance abuse problems. Then work at the Darmstadt Shelter in Kingston assisting the homeless; and at the Domestic Violence Shelter, where she was a case manager and children’s counselor. From there Antonelli became a probation officer before moving over to be a case manager with the Multi-County Community Development Agency, where she provided support and supervision of consumers and outreach for mental health services in finding apartments.
During all these shifts and re-shifts in positions within the “system,” Antonelli has advocated — in either a full-time or part-time basis — for defendants in the criminal justice system for alternative sentencing, which is overseen by Ulster County Community Corrections through the office of the public defender. “It’s an alternative to incarceration,” says Antonelli, “where I’ll work with the public defender to identify appropriate cases which could encompass substance abuse, mental health and where I’ll provide case management services and a needs assessment of each case to ensure the rehabilitation of the defendant.” She starts with the individual at arraignment. “The defendant has to want this alternative,” says Antonelli, “and I work with them until his or her sentencing. It’s mostly young people, heavily addicted, some with mental health issues, and I try to put in place what that particular defendant is willing to do. Probation itself is an alternative. But mostly we want to help these people to become responsible citizens, within, of course, the structure and safe-guarding of the community at large.”
Antonelli has seen lots of success so far in the program. “It’s working within the system to utilize community resources,” she reiterates. “And it works when together different people can promote a more informed and thus successful outcome, when appropriate, to incarceration. The alternative program was first created to alleviate jail overcrowding and to identify certain individuals that could be rehabilitated, but always with safeguards to protect the community. Cutbacks in mental health and other support services, though, have resulted in individuals winding up with jail time instead of the alternatives.”
Antonelli at one time had considered becoming a lawyer, but this position “combines the law with social work, especially mental health and substance abuse, and I think it provides a better outcome and benefits society more than incarceration.”
There are people who engage with our society through the “back-door” (so to speak). And there are people like Antonelli who are dedicated to the idea that the “front door” can be more available than those others might think or imagine. By understanding how “the system” works and to try to give those others the option to enter through the front door, she provides more than just case management. She throws them a potential life-line and it is up to that person to grab onto it or not. The famous line (attributed to many) — “Life is unfair” — is a quote adored by most of the conservative persuasion to explain how some have and others don’t; Antonelli is there to assure that all have at least the option of having a life that is fair.